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Christopher’s Place Employment Academy Graduation Speech

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The following is the text from Danko Arlington President John Danko’s remarks to recent graduates from Christopher’s Place Employment Academy, 25 Fallsway, Baltimore, Maryland 21202, Thanksgiving  Week, November 21, 2017.

Good afternoon. Thank you for inviting me.  I have been to Christopher’s place many times, but never had the opportunity to present to a graduating class. It’s not every day that one has an opportunity to share a few words with such an inspiring and diverse group.

I say inspiring, because you have overcome the odds to be where you are today.  Against great adversity, hardship, challenges, and tough barriers. So, congratulations.  I wish you the best of luck in your future!  I only have a few thoughts to share with you today.

As an employer of ex-offenders, I am often asked why we hire second chance applicants.

Why we do it is because it simply is the right thing to do.  Our company is located in Northwest Baltimore – an area which desperately needs jobs.    Personally, I have had only had one job in my entire life, and it is working at Danko Arlington – now full time for over 31 years, 37 years if you count my summer jobs in high school and college.   To inherit a corporation as the next generation bears much responsibility.   I am grateful for my mom and dad to teach me the humbling value that, “to much is given, much is expected.“

This inheritance also complements my Christian faith.  And as Christians, we learn that faith must be put into action, even in the working world.  What a better way to do both –working at the company and putting faith into action. Can this be done?  A recent canonized saint of our time, Saint Teresa of Calcutta said that it could.   Mother Theresa once remarked about her dear famous and wealthy friend, Princess Diana, that we are all called to action.  It does not matter if you are a princess living in a castle, she said, we all are entrusted with the same responsibility of faith.   Managers too also have this same responsibility.  We are all called to be love our neighbors and even co-workers as ourselves.

Our Christian faith teaches us that when we die, we will be judged.   When we are judged, we will not be judged on how much money we earned, our company’s balance sheet, where we lived, what kind of school we attended, or what kind of car or house we owned. Rather, we will be judged on “I was hungry, and you gave me food.  I was thirsty, and you gave me drink.  I was sick, and you comforted me.  Naked, and you clothed me.  I was in prison, and you came to visit me.”  And perhaps, I was down-and-out, unemployed, and unemployable, and you gave me a break – you gave me a job.   What ever you do for the least of my brothers and sisters, you do for me.

When I was in my mid-twenties, I was also influenced by the politics of that time.  During the late 1980’s, I was greatly moved by a slogan coined by our forty first President, George H. Walker Bush — the first Bush President.   He came up with the notion of a “thousand points of light.”   This is where individuals, faith based groups, non-profits, churches, communities, and corporate America pitched in to make our country a better place.   Helping those in need was not the sole responsibility of Government, but responsibilities for you and me –like Catholic Charities and Christopher’s place.    We are all shining stars in this room – glistening and gleaming.

So here we are among so much brightness.  I am so proud of you!  Again congratulations! So where do you go from here?

As graduates, you will soon be entering the working world, that unlike your previous life at Christopher’s Place or in a recovery institution or behind the fence, you will not be provided and cared for.   Its all up to you how you succeed.

Companies like mine that hire ex-offenders are very forgiving and patient.  We understand that you are getting back into the workforce.  We give lots of second chances.  Third chances.  Fourth Chances.  But you have to be willing to improve. You have to be willing to overcome the internal and external barriers to keep going.  In our case at Danko Arlington, the lack of success with our ex-offenders are not the result of our efforts.  Rather it is the fault of the newly hired-ex-offender who starts to be late, leaves early, lies, eventually does not show up for work, and gets back in trouble again.

Years ago, when this happened, I used to get in my car, drive to the employee’s residence and knock on their door.   Most of the time, the employee was not there, or if they were, did not come to the door.   I should not have to do this, but I did so, because I cared and wanted our hires to succeed.  I and am so busy now, that I stopped this years ago.   To put in simply, your future job and your success is up to you.

The most important part of your future job is to show up – to be there and be on-time.   I can’t tell you how many employers like ours have this problem.   Not just with ex-offenders, but with everyone these days.   So, Rule #1 — be there!  Be on time too! Don’t leave early, and work a full week for a full-week of pay.  So many times, new hires miss time, then ask for a raise.  Why not just work your full forty hours to start out, then ask for a raise?

Actually, to be on time and working a full week is Rule #2.  Rule #1 precedes this.   Rule #1 is what you should be doing right now.  That is finding a job, and not just any job, but one you like.   Often, we see the job application process is like a factory worker standing on an assembly line.   In front of you are job opportunities that come by on the belt, and you pick and choose what comes up.    This is important, but not as important in picking the job, or seeking the job which you our like to do!    The secret in happy and long employment is to find a job that you will be willing to get up and go to work each day and enjoy.   Hard to believe, but this is more important than wages.   Don’t just get a job for the pay.  Get a job for what you like to do.  I you like to cook, find a job in a kitchen.  If you like to work with your hands, find a trade in construction, if you have a great voice, find a job singing.  But if you do not have a good singing voice, do not apply to be a singer!   Do some soul searching and come up with a job that you will like to do.  Then do your search. Most employers will train entry level workers for advancement, so ask how you can grow with that company, if you take a beginner job.

Please also keep in mind that you have been out of the workforce loop for some time, and as you are a starting over, it will take some time to work up to another level.   Often time, we see our re-entry employees frustrated, jealous, and envious of co-workers who advance in front of them.

Frustration is common among those in re-entry.  Perhaps it because one starting all over, the pay is not that great, no seniority, and you have more responsibility more than ever.   This frustration often leads to despair.   Avoiding despair is Rule # 3.

In my opinion, despair is the leading cause of new-hire self-destruction.   With a paycheck, you may have garnishments for child support and past bills.  You will also have to feed yourself, find a safe and secure place to live, and most importantly, you may have to find new friends.    Getting overwhelmed with this new lifestyle will certainly get you down.  Particularly because when you graduate, there are no safety groups like Christopher’s Place or counseling sessions.  Probation officers do not seem to fill this essential gap.  The biggest constructive criticism of programs like this one is that there needs to be a continuation of support once you graduate.   Without support, despair creeps in and, there is strong tendency to go back to your old self and just give up.  Don’t give up!

Instead, try to surround yourself with supporting friends and family.  If so inclined, volunteer once-in-a-while to help those who are less fortunate that yourself at this point.   Perhaps you can share or witness your experience, particularly with younger people who are already on the wrong path.   Join a church, or faith based group, or a support group if you can find one that is convenient.  Don’t bottle up your frustration, but be humble and seek out companionship and fellowship.

If you are frustrated with your lack of growth and development, seek self-improvement.   You may need better reading, writing, or computer skills to find a better job.   Don’t just waste your time watching tv, surfing the web, or playing video games when you are not working.  Learn to type, learn Microsoft Office, improve your handwriting.   These are all skills that no one will ask you to do, but are necessary if you want to advance in your job from a manual labor skill to a supervisory or administration position of more responsibility.   Manage your free time for constant self-improvement.

Self-improvement and confronting frustration will keep you from being angry.   Rule # 4 is do not be angry.   Anger on the job is sure to make you isolated and singled-out from your co-workers.   I realize that you have a lot to be angry about in your past, present, and perhaps your future.  Forgive yourself and move on.  I cannot tell you how many other employers are worried about hiring ex-offenders because they fear that there will be violent behavior in their workplace.   Solving conflicts on the streets is not the same we solve conflicts on the job.   Discrimination and sexual harassment are huge concerns at the workforce today.   You need to control yourself, your emotions, and your anger on the job.  Seek help if anger still consumes you – if not, it will eventually bubble over on your job and cause you to lose your employment.

Lastly, Rule # 5 – just as important as all the rest, learn how to save and how to spend.   At Danko Arlington, we have hired individuals who have never had a bank account, or even a job before!  You need to learn how to budget your income so you don’t quickly get in debt.    If your rent is too high, consider roommates, or staying with family.  Perhaps you need to work another part-time job for extra income.   Be careful in making those purchases.  Become frugal.  Save. Save. Save.

In summary, one of the most enjoyable parts of offering second chance opportunities is not only helping society, but seeing the remarkable transition from those who choose to start over, with little to transformation and success.  Success includes being at peace with themselves, getting custody of their kids back, getting an apartment, or car.  These are all huge milestones in completing your transition back into the community.   The ex-offenders that are successful certainly overshadow those who self-destruct.   If one ex-offender is successful, it makes up for the many who fell by the wayside.

Don’t be that one that falls by the wayside!  Employers like Danko Arlington are in great need of reliable workers.  Maryland unemployment is at 3.8% now, that’s less than the 4.1% national average.  Companies are screaming for workers.   Companies will train with skills.  This is a great time to look for work.   Don’t just be a robot or do the minimum, but concentrate on your continued success and improvement.

As this is Thanksgiving week, I want to close with saying thanks to you, Christopher’s Place, and all the other organizations that work with re-entry.  Thanks, because, you and these organizations have inspired me, our company, and so many countless other employers.   If can overcome all the odds and adversity, we too can overcome our daily barriers – many seem so trite in comparison to yours.   Make every day count, and enjoy your renewed freedom – the future is all up to you!

Happy Thanksgiving!